The Anglesea Heath is a rare remnant of the heathlands that once covered vast areas of Australia.
Twenty years ago the Australian Heritage Commission reported that it contained the richest and most diverse vegetation communities recorded in Victoria, a distinction that earned it a place on the Register of the National Estate (1992). Registration was most important as it formally acknowledged the important conservation values of the area, its outstanding botanical diversity and the abundant wildlife characteristic of this bio-geographic region.
The Heath boasts no fewer than seven different vegetation communities, from the shaded river valleys with their thickets of Scented Paperbark, Manuka and Woolly Teatree, to the heathy forests of Brown Stringybark and Messmate, and open heaths and woodlands.
In all, the Anglesea Heath has more than 700 plant species, or approximately a quarter of Victoria’s flora. Eight species are rare or threatened nationally, and 20 more are rare or threatened at state level. Six species – including the Anglesea Grevillea and the Anglesea Leek Orchid – are endemic. The area’s wealth of orchid species makes it nationally significant. More than a quarter of Victoria’s orchids – over 100 species and five hybrids – have been recorded here. Among them are tiny Helmet Orchids, delicate Greenhoods, colourful Sun Orchids and cheerful Donkey Orchids.
Wherever there is flora, there is fauna, the mammals, insects, birds, fish and reptiles drawn to the range of vegetation communities that meet their special needs. The Anglesea Heath is home to 29 native mammal species. Two of them – the New Holland Mouse and Southern Brown Bandicoot – are nationally endangered. Other rare species, such as the Swamp Antechinus and the White-footed Dunnart, find food and shelter in the moist river valleys or the sweeping heathy woodlands.
The sky, the trees and the understorey support more than 100 bird species, which include the Grey Goshawk, the Powerful Owl, the rare Rufous Bristlebird and a host of honeyeaters. In the swamps and tributaries of the Anglesea River live the vulnerable Swamp Skink, the Warty Bell Frog, the Southern Pygmy Perch, and Spotted Galaxias.
But the Heath has more than its visible treasures. Under its surface lie clues to the time when – 40 million years ago in the Eocene epoch – the coal that fired the power station was formed. In pre-history’s layers lie fossils that tell the story of the wet tropical landscape of the time. Leaf and flower fossils found on the site are the earliest known remains of an Ebenaceae tree species, whose modern relatives are found almost exclusively in the tropics. The Alcoa Power Station was built adjacent to an open cut coal mine to supply electricity for its aluminum smelter at Point Henry.
How has the jewel of the Anglesea Heath managed to survive more than 50 years of mining, the pressures of growing resident populations and tourist traffic, feral animals, weeds and the devastating effect of the root-rot water mould, Phytophthora cinnamomi?
Although the lease exempted from statutory provisions that protect the integrity of national parks, the interested parties got together late last century to discuss the Heath’s future. In 2000, a unique partnership was formed. The Co-operative Land Management Agreement between Alcoa and the then Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE), enabled a government agency and a mining company to co-operatively manage an area for conservation. The name “Anglesea Heath” was chosen for the Alcoa leasehold, and a Consultative Committee including Alcoa, Parks Victoria, Surf Coast Shire, ANGAIR members Margaret MacDonald and Evelyn Jones, the Geelong Environment Council, and staff from School of Biology and Chemistry of Deakin University (Geelong), worked during the next two years, to develop a management plan for the Heath. The ANGAIR members already had a wealth of botanical knowledge about the area and played a major role in the preparation of the plan. The landmark agreement was struck in 2002. Since then the management of the Anglesea Heath has rested jointly with Alcoa, Parks Victoria and the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.
The agreement was Australia’s first example of an explicit partnership between a conservation agency and a mining company to manage an area, so that its biodiversity could be safeguarded. The standard of care adopted was that of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s description of land that is, in essence, a national park, to be managed mainly for ecosystem conservation and recreation. In launching the plan on 9 December 2002, at a ceremony in the Heath beside Forest Road, Sherryl Garbutt, Minister for Environment and Conservation, described the Anglesea Heath as a “hidden jewel”.
Coal mining and power generation continued until Alcoa announced that it would close the power station and the associated coal mine in August 2015. The mining area, which covers part of the area known to be of national conservation significance, has been progressively rehabilitated by Alcoa since the 1970s. The mined out areas have been back-filled using large excavators and dump trucks. The overburden removed from the top of the coal reserves was used to back-fill the hole created by mining.
Once the return of the overburden was complete, a minimum of one metre of clay/gravel that is found naturally below the topsoil and subsoil is replaced, as are the subsoil and topsoil. Then the landscape was ripped on contour with a large tractor to prevent water run-off and erosion. Carefully preserved mulch gathered in the land clearing process was laid down and allowed to regenerate naturally. The mine rehabilitation areas were surveyed annually to monitor their progress and determine whether any hand planting would be required. It is anticipated that this process will continue and result in the restoration of a self-sustaining eco-system, and that the final void will become a lake. This unique partnership of the mining company, government agencies and the community has preserved this “hidden jewel”.
Although the Anglesea Heath was not incorporated into the Great Otway National Park when it was declared in 2004, ANGAIR is hopeful that this situation will be resolved soon. In July 2015, the Minister for Environment, Water and Climate Change, Lisa Neville, said “We have committed to the inclusion of the Anglesea Heath in the Great Otway National Park, and are working with Alcoa to make that happen as soon as possible, for the benefit of the local community.”